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We All Have Pictures Hidden Away

UNITED KINGDOM | Thursday, 21 August 2014 | Views [226]

The first sign that The Picture of Dorian Gray wasn't going to be a normal show occurred when a tall man in Victorian dress gathered us together for the announcement that we'd get more out of the evening if we stood and participated, but if we needed chairs for any reason- gout, polio, etc. just let him know now.

We proceeded to follow him into a room. In the front was a slight elevation and a wooden floor that was the closest thing it had to a stage. It was divided into two rooms- a sitting room and a bedroom. To the right were two shops- Sweeney Todd's barbershop and Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop. In the center were a bunch of woman and a few men murmuring how glad they were we'd come.

Then they started singing vague outlines of the life of Dorian Gray. We look from one voice to another, trying to orient ourselves. I can't follow the words because there is so much other action to try and figure out. Who are these characters? Which one is Dorian Gray?

The song finishes, and two characters pick up an argument. One is them is carrying a picture covered with a cloth. That would be Basil Hallward. The other is asking to meet the boy, though Basil protests he'll ruin Dorian. That must make him Lord Henry Wotton. It is, though he insists Dorian (and everyone else of importance) calls him Harry.

Despite Basil's objections, Harry followed him to Dorian's house. While Basil added the finishing touches, Harry did exactly what Basil was afraid he'd do. Each time he appeared, his manner was at once sinister and oddly appealing. He'd express outrageous ideas in such a rational manner that they almost seemed reasonable. So when he met the young and impressionable Dorian, the result was hardly surprising. Harry proved a bad influence. So much so that upon seeing the painting, Dorian's first reaction was "this isn't me."

I'm pretty sure it is.

Dorian-actor standing next to Dorian-picture

After Basil convinces him that yes, this is in fact what Dorian looks like, he complained how unfair it was that the painting would stay young and beautiful forever, but he'd grow old and ugly. Harry made a comment about how that wouldn't do for Basil's line of work (though it doesn't particularly matter. Despite being Basil's best work yet, he has no plans to exhibit it, since he feels it would reveal too much of himself.), then invites Dorian to the opera. Dorian accepts, and Basil and Harry leave. The book Harry was carrying stays behind.

It's been a while since I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I remember the book that Lord Henry Wotton gave Dorian. It was yellow, and Dorian wasn't sure if he was reading about a medieval saint or a modern sinner. If Dorian could read about the voyage of characters named Christian and Faithful as they go from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City and interpret that as the confessions of a sinner, he is either a lot denser or a lot more imaginative than I'd previously given him credit for. Then again, he did have difficulties recognizing a picture of himself.

The next scene featured a long string of women (including the accomplished poet the Duchess of Monmouth and widows Ladies Ermintrude and Lady Griselda. It has been several years since their husbands died ["you must miss them terribly." "We should. I mean, we do. We do."] leaving them the right amount of money.) eager to meet Dorian. They are all delighted at his youthful good looks and boyish charm. The Duchess wants to talk to Harry, and Ladies Ermintrude and Griselda can be trusted to entertain themselves (they run past the Duchess and Harry and off to a quiet corner to make out) and the rest of the women follow to area behind us for dancing. Soon, Harry begins singing. ("Victorian Vices") Dorian, overwhelmed, makes his excuses and leaves.

As he's walking around one night, a woman asks if he wants a box for theater. He says yes, but refuses the generous offer of companionship (a male and female from the audience.) So he sits down and watches the show.

Sibyl Vane comes out dressed in white and carrying flowers. She hans them to people in the audience while singing. ("He is dead and gone, lord, he is dead and gone.") I looked away from her and at Dorian. He is staring at her awestruck. As she leaves, Dorian scrambles to stand beside his chair. So when the Mrs. Issacs offers to introduce them, he can hardly refuse. He takes the flowers from the audience members and gathers them to give to her.

When they meet, Sibyl is as charmed by Dorian as he was by her. He corrects Mrs. Issac's assumption that he's a lord, to which Sibyl immediately says "no. You must be a prince. Prince Charming." Dorian leaves, and Sibyl starts singing about how she's never felt this kind of love before, only acted it. ("I've played the Juliet to a failing Romeo.") During this song, Dorian returns with a ring that he slips onto her finger.

When she's done, her mother appears to talk about how much money they owe Mrs. Issacs. Sibyl is convinced that her Prince Charming will save her from all of that, and take her away from her forced life onstage. Then her aunt Ida appears to give a stronger form of that warning, concerned about what Dorian's intentions may be. This brings Sibyl's mother into reminisces about her own time on stage and the gentlemen who would court her. ("Nine marriages I've planned. Sibyl, yours shall be my tenth, and this one might end in a wedding.) Ida is none too happy about this. She's going to America with the Hamilton's, and she's concerned about what will happen to Sibyl without her protection. But Sibyl only laughs it off, eager for an adventure of her own.

They leave, and Dorian, Harry, and Basil appear to watch the show. Mrs. Issacs is delighted Dorian finally brought friends, and asks for their names. Unlike Dorian, Harry and Basil appear to realize what a seedy area of town they're in and make up names. Dorian: "And this is the esteemed artist-"

Basil: "Chartreuse"

Harry: "Brushworthy."

It's a rather strained introduction.

Harry is skeptical of this theater as a place to meet one's wife, but Dorian assures them they'll understand when they watch Sibyl. She makes her appearance to say a brisk and emotionless speech from Romeo and Juliet. She leaves again as quickly as she appeared and spoke, and a couple of audience members snicker.

Harry and Basil cannot see why Dorian would praise Sibyl's acting, but can readily acknowledge her beauty, and that she would make a good wife. Dorian says she will never be his wife, and goes to confront her and demand her ring back.

It's a turning point for Dorian's character, and it was a delight to watch. Up to this point, Dorian was almost deserving of the epithet "Prince Charming." But as Sibyl throws himself into his arms and he pushes her away, her nickname and her dream future both dissolve into imaginings. Dorian's facial expressions are wonderful.

"My friends were bored. I was bored," he says, looking like he's never been bored before, and is in fact trying to identity his present emotion.

"I could have made you famous." Sibyl is still hoping, but you can tell that Dorian is coming to terms with the loss of his dreams. Of course, the two never matched. "You could have appeared on the world's stages and borne my name. But what are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face."

"I don't mean to be cruel, but I can't see you again. You have disappointed me, and I won't allow you to do so again."  The words are terrible, but I believe him. The look he gives Sibyl isn't hateful, despite the shame he believes himself to have suffered at her hands. But if there's no dislike, nor is there even a hint of warmth. He feels absolutely nothing for her.

As he leaves, Sibyl throws her ring after him. Dorian wanders the streets singing a reprise of an earlier song. ("Beauty only serves to make the very best of minds stumble to their deaths") After he's been walking alone for a bit, low-class women start singing about his cruelty to Sibyl Vane. ("Dorian, Dorian, Prince Charming so they say. / Dorian, Dorian, Prince Charming why so grey?") When Dorian returns to his house, he regards the picture with disgust.

The next scene is Harry showing up to "help" Dorian. Dorian has decided to reform and marry Sibyl Vane, but Harry reveals that she killed herself the night before. Dorian is shocked , but is talked into joining Harry at the opera, despite his initial exclamation at how frightfully dramatic life is.

Harry leaves, and Basil comes in. Reassured by Dorian's composure, he gives good news- the picture will be exhibited after all. Dorian is not pleased by this change. In lieu of giving his own reason, he asks Basil why he didn't want the picture to be exhibited initially. While Basil drones on about how he worshipped Dorian, Dorian's face once again becomes marvelously expressive. At times he accepts a compliment with a "well, that's true enough" expression and head movement. At times his looks turn more incredulous, like he doesn't think even Basil believes what he's saying. But for the most part, his facial expressions are sarcastic. "That makes perfect sense," I can almost imagine him saying. "I understand completely." Dorian's face makes his response to Basil ("What have you told me? That you admire me too much? That's not even a compliment.") even more cutting. Basil asks to see the painting, and Dorian denies him, silencing his questions with a kiss.

Dorian's butler/the man who led us in/the announcer of time passing tells us that 18 years have passed. England is blooming and Queen Victoria is well, so God save the queen.

An aged Basil comes in for another conversation with Dorian. During the intervening years they have fallen out of touch, and from the sounds of it most of Dorian's "friends" wind up his enemies, in disgrace, or dead. Basil is eager to hear rumours of his sinful behavior denied before he gets on the train to Paris where he will spend the next six months. Dorian cannot, but is inspired to show Basil his soul, in the form of the painting. Basil is horrified, but as the truth becomes painfully obvious, he says it's not too late to pray. He is trying when Dorian stabs him.

From there, Dorian heads towards the opium den. Ladies Ermintrude and Griselda sing of their love for each other, even though they've been forced to become prostitutes. They greet Dorian, then bring up Patricia Singleton, a woman Dorian clearly has a connection to.  He asks how she is, she laughs and says she's as penniless as the day she was born, and Dorian offers to help her. She refuses, and Lady Griselda suggests she can help him.

"It was not an open offer."

Speaking of open offers... another prostitute tries to interest him, to no effect. She starts describing everything she knows about him, which gets the attention of Sibyl's aunt Ida. She and some others chase him down the street and are about to kill him when Dorian points out he is too young to have broken Sibyl's heart 18 years ago. Ida let's him go, and he suggests she use it as a warning "not to take vengeance into her own hands." The others ask what she's done, saying that was Prince Charming. He's just not aged. She vows to make him pay for what he did.

Another year has passed. Sibyl Vane's aunt Ida was shot in a "hunting accident" on Dorian Gray's estate, but Queen Victoria is well and England is blooming, so God save the queen.

An aged Harry comes in to talk with the ever-youthful Dorian. Dorian tells him that he's finally reformed, and talks about the peasant girl, Hetty, who he loved but let go instead of ruining. "Of course she cried and all that, but she has a life." Harry points out that now that she's had Dorian, she won't be happy with anyone from her own class. Dorian is infuriated to think that his first good deed in years, his first sacrifice ever, did more harm than good. He turns the conversation to Basil, asking Harry if it had ever occurred to him that he'd killed Basil. Harry says Dorian doesn't have the ability to kill someone and, after extracting Dorian's promise to be around at 10 the next day, he leaves.

Dorian slumps into a chair and starts reflecting on the prayer Basil tried to get him to say. Then he goes into his bedroom and moves the picture to his bed. He regards it, picks up the knife, and slashes it. He slumps forward and the picture jumps, landing face-up on my feet.

The cast is milling through us once more, singing the same melody as earlier but with new words. They're telling us what the picture and Dorian looked like when they were found, and they're guiding us towards the door. And then, still singing, they shut themselves inside.

I've seen a lot of great shows in the past week alone. I've also seen productions at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and on Broadway that are nearly impossible to beat. So, while some of my fellow audience members gave standing ovations to Siddhartha and Dracula, I remained seated. While good, they simply weren't some of the best plays of my life.
I would have given The Picture of Dorian Gray a standing ovation. They took a beautiful work of literature and enhanced it. The music was beautiful, and the acting was magnificent. The mingling of characters and audience kept things engaging, and everything just combined to make it one of the best shows of my life. Unfortunately, I was standing the entire time, and we were ushered out of the theater before the last song ended. I could (and did) clap for the producer, and hope that the cast could hear as well. I don't think it did an adequate job of expressing just how much I loved the show.

Tags: fringe, musicals, victorian vices, wilde

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